Thursday, September 27, 2018

Flash Fiction # 322 -- Connor of Northgate/6

Chapter Two

Growing up at Northgate was an adventure.  Connor had understood that from the time he began to walk and got into trouble like all the other children at the keep.  He wasn't the only one often reprimanded by an older fae and sent back out of the armory or out of Askela's kitchens.
He had friends among the half-dozen fae children born to the Northgate Keep. Human not fae the adults would sometimes say of him, though as a child he hadn't understood.  When he grew a little older, Lord Northgate, to whom Connor was a ward, said it had to do with magic, which humans didn't have.

At first Connor thought that made him less than the fae, and he felt sadness his ten-year-old mind couldn't quite grasp and understand.  That passed, though, as his friends sought him out and dragged him along to more adventures.

"I don't care if you are human," Nylia said with a lift of her head, her golden hair swinging back to show those curved ears, so different from his own.

Connor's hair was almost as blond, at least, so he didn't stand out too much.  Nylia was a year older than the rest of them and seemed wiser for it.
Erlis and Renden muttered agreements.

"You belong to Northgate.  You were born here.  My mother says your parents were very, very brave and saved Lord Northgate.  She said you deserve all the honor we couldn't give to them because they died."

He'd heard the tale from Lord Northgate, but listening to the words from Nylia made the story different. "I would rather have honor for myself," he finally said.

"That you'll have to gain on your own.  However, being human isn't bad," Nylia said and looked directly into his eyes.  "Don't ever let them tell you so."

And then they went on and played some more.

At fifteen, the first serious change took place in his life.  It came unexpectedly, though.  Lord Northgate had agreed to foster a young fae from the wild lands -- areas outside the keeps and even outside the villages.

"Liam is a seer," Lord Northgate said to the gathered court the day before the newcomer arrived.  People looked shocked and worried.  "He's just coming into his power and obviously confused.  Liam had no early training and no one realized his power until it began to seriously manifest.  I expect all of you to treat him well and help him through this time.  A seer has a difficult task, sorting through the visions to learn what is real, what is possible and what is only his imagination."

The others nodded, looking troubled as they slipped away.  Connor went with Erlis and Rendon, both of whom looked bothered.

"I know what a seer is," Connor said.  "Why is that a problem?"

"Because sometimes they can tell you things you don't want to know," Erlis replied, shaking his head with worry.  "And sometimes they can even tell you things you shouldn't know, and then you try to change the future.  That's dangerous, especially for the fae."

Rendon nodded as well.  "I heard he's Nylia's age.  That means we'll be dealing with him. I wouldn't want his power, and I really don't want to deal with him, either."

"We'll all start coming into our powers soon," Erlis said.

Then he looked at Connor, shock in his face, as though he only now realized Connor would not have powers.

They walked on in silence to dinner.  The table where Connor and his friends sat remained quiet that night, and Connor felt as though he had lost something precious with the arrival of Liam.  He thought he ought to be angry at the intrusion.

That night, sitting on the bed where he had been born, Connor thought about what it meant to be different from the others.  This Liam would have that taint, too. First, he was an outsider, and he couldn't remember the last time anyone had moved into the Keep. They had visitors, of course, but people didn't stay.  Even the people from the Royal Court only came now and then, looked things over, and returned to the safer keeps and castles.

Yes, safer. Connor hadn't thought that through, either.  He knew that there had been trolls and an invasion and the death of many people besides his parents.

Connor went to the window and looked down at the courtyard below.  People moved there with bobbing lights trailing above them like glowing birds on a leash. 

He would never make that light.

He felt cold then; cold at the very essential difference between him and his friends and the one thing he could not change.

Like Liam couldn't change.  That thought brought him back to his original musings about how he and Liam were perhaps a bit alike.  They could not change the difference that set them apart.  Maybe he shouldn't be upset at the arrival of this strange fae. Perhaps, for Lord Northgate's sake if nothing else, he should make no judgments and see if he could befriend this stranger.

Connor didn't know much about the wild lands except it was where some of the odder magical creatures lived who didn't like to be in the cities and castles.  In truth, he had never been far beyond the keep's walls in all his life, and he'd never thought much about it.  This was home.

Connor slept lightly that night, awoke before dawn and dressed.  He sat by the window and waited. Not long after sunrise, he heard the sound of others arriving, but that would not be Liam -- not at first light.

In the faint light he could see several huge creatures, all of them dead and strung across a wagon.  Sounds erupted from the castle and he saw others rushing out.  The guards had plainly found Trolls in the nearby hills.

Connor stood.  Then he settled in the chair again.  They did not need him underfoot.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Flash Fiction #321 -- Connor of Northgate/5

Lord Northgate did as she ordered, letting his mind clear as he accepted that he had survived to make it home.  He recalled everything, and the anger must have shown in his eyes, though he hadn't the strength to make any other show.  Magra gave a grim nod, though, as if understanding his mood. She said nothing.

He sipped tea imbued with herbs and magic.  They'd taken him to his own rooms, and he looked about the tapestry covered-walls and at the window thrown open to the warmth and bright light.  He had expected a storm still, and that made him wonder how long he'd lain here, senseless. He didn't worry about himself, though.

"The woman -- Clarice," he said softly.

Her eyes told him the truth before she spoke.  "The poison got into her system, Lord Northgate.  We've done our best to keep it from the child as well, but she cannot live much longer.  The healers say it is best if the child is born within the hour.  A little young to be brought into the world, but the healers will keep him safe.  No, be still.  The poison, Lord Northgate -- the healers even from the Queen herself could not get it from your system.  They've found a way to hold it at bay.  It will not kill you.  Not yet."

The news sent a chill through him, but he still moved to sit up.  Magra clucked her tongue in protest but finally helped him.  The room spun, and he gasped, but he stayed conscious.

"I must see Clarice before she dies," he said; horrible words.  Humans lived such short lives, and that always bothered the fae, but to have the lives cut short by foul magic, and to have lost those precious years to help protect him was a heavy weight on his soul.

Magra went to the door and called others.  She might have used magic, but they were used to doing things for themselves here at home.  Magic was for other places; to use it too often made a fae lazy and eventually deadened his very soul.  They were not merely creatures of magic, the fae.  They were bodies as well, which Lord Northgate knew too well as he tried to stand.

He tottered to his feet before Godewyn and Tage arrived.  Both looked ready to argue, but Magra silenced them before they began to protest.

"He needs to see the fine lady who helped save him.  There will not be another chance."

So they gathered him up, Magra adding a little magic to help him as he moved.  They went through the dark, cool halls of Northgate Keep, a place of loss and sorrow today.  He would have to ask about all those who had died here.

He would have to find out how and why this had happened.  This had not been merely an attack of trolls, a random outbreak of their old hostilities.  They had poison and needles to deliver death that could not be countered, and trolls would not have managed that subtlety on their own.  Something had set the trolls on this path and given them the power to arrive on the wind.

He would find the answer.

They arrived at the door to a guest suite, not very far from his own rooms though it had felt like miles.  A soft knock brought Isole out, tears in her eyes.  She bowed her head to Lord Northgate and took one ragged breath before she spoke.

"The child comes now, my Lord.  You cannot go in to see her until this is done.  She is courageous, is Clarice.  Calm.  She knows she will die, but the child will live.  Sit here. This will not take long."

With a wave of her hand, she made a bench for him; a kindness and he settled there, trying to calm the hard beats of his heart and the dread that came over him, knowing death lingered only a doorway beyond.

Isole went back inside the room.  He caught a glimpse of a bed, of several healers, of Clarice's dark hair falling across a pillow.

They waited in silence.

Not long.  He heard the cry of the child, a quick protest at being born.  A good cry, for all the trouble that came with this birth.  He sounded strong.

Isole arrived almost immediately at the door.  Her eyes were dry now but her face bleak.

"Quickly, sir.  There is little time."

He stood without help, the others hurrying to keep up with him as he crossed through the door and into the room.

Clarice looked to him and gave a little nod, as though she had no more strength.  He could see her eyes fluttering and felt the magic that kept her from the pain that would have dragged her down and made this moment anything but calm.  He gave a grateful nod to the healers, all of whom stood in a solemn array to the far side of the bed now.  One of them held the baby, wrapped in a blanket of spring green.  The child moved.  The healer laid the bundle upon the bed, nestled in the woman's weak arm.

"You -- you will take care of him?" she whispered, looking to Lord Northgate.  The words were bare sounds, her eyes flickering.  "Promise you will --"

"I give you my promise that I will do all to keep the child from harm," he said.

Magra and Isole both took startled gasps.  He had put power into those words, and such a promise meant more than words to a fae.  He had taken the child fully and completely into his care.  He thought that somehow Clarice might have understood as well.

"What will you name the child?" he asked, fearing each breath would be the last.

"Chad liked Connor," she whispered, tears of loss in her eyes.

"Connor," he said with a bow of his head.

By the time he looked up, she had died.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Flash Fiction #320 -- Connor of Northgate/4

The troll swept a huge hand around, the needle in his hairy fingers catching the light.  It growled and jabbed the man, who fell with hardly a gasp of pain.

And died.

Northgate bellowed in protest and rage as he staggered to his feet and rammed the troll, which did not knock it down, though the creature was off balance. Lord Northgate tried to pull a sword from the air, but he couldn't collect enough power.

He spotted the sharp end of a broken paddle at his feet. He dared not listen to the wife -- to Clarice -- as she arrived, though he could not block out her cry of anguish. Did she have the rifle? Could he get hold of the weapon, or was she as likely to kill him? Use the paddle first, then go for another weapon.

The troll held the needle up, ready to kill him with a second blow. So be it. However, it would not kill Clarice as well, or the unborn child, which he only now remembered.  He would take the troll with him when he died.

Northgate swept the paddle in low -- and at the same time heard the loud retort of the rifle.  The bullet went close by him and slammed into the chest of the troll, splattering fur, bone, and blood everywhere.

"You bastard!  You bastard!"  She fired again.

The troll didn't die.  Trolls were harder than hell to kill with anything but pure magic, but she had given Northgate a chance.  He pulled up magic again, the power pulsing with his labored heartbeat.  The troll appeared stunned; enough so that when Clarice charged in, swinging the rifle in uncontrollable rage, it missed disemboweling her, though that needle -- the damned needle it should not have -- pierced her hand.

She did not die immediately.  Northgate wasn't sure why.  Less of the poison on the needle?  Her emotional state?  It didn't matter.  Northgate used her attack to make his final blow of bright red magic to the head, straight through the eyes. The troll crumpled and died, the body falling into the lake.

Clarice went to her knees, still screaming with what breath she had left.  When Northgate reached for her, she hit him with the rifle as well, until she hadn't the strength left to do more.  Then she gathered her husband's body into her arms.

"Wake up, Chad.  Wake up.  Wake up."

The words drove a different pain into his heart.

Northgate could see the spot on her arm where the needle had scratched, an ugly wound pulsing with a combination of magic and poison. She would die of it, and the child with her.  All three deaths on his soul.


Northgate could barely hold the poison at bay in his own body, but he'd been doing that instinctively from the moment he felt the power in the needle.  She had no such magical abilities.  He hadn't enough magic to aide her.

Only one answer.

He took hold of her cold left hand, drawing it away from the body of her husband.  She had gone numb now, staring at Northgate with gray eyes that didn't see him or the world around her.  Touching her, he was aware of the child as well. A boy, near-term, and aware of something wrong in the way only a child might be, linked so closely to his mother.

"We must go," Northgate whispered.

She shook her head and still held tight to her husband's arm.

He could have told her Chad was dead, to leave him.  He said nothing for fear of breaking into that numbness that had taken over her mind.  He needed her calm because he was not going to be able to try this next desperate action more than once.

He reached out with his other arm, the one filled with poison and screaming in pain, and forced himself to concentrate on home as he made a portal.  Northgate Keep, so far away, was still part of him.  He had the link to it always, a compass point in his soul.  He was Lord of the place, and that meant far more than just ruling the people.

He caught hold of home and dragged her, her dead husband, and himself back to the Keep.

He almost lost the way for one terrifying heartbeat and thought he would be trapped forever in a miasmic swarm of magic between here and there.  He fought against the fear and the darkness that almost took them.  He could sense home, not far away.

Arrived somewhere, the cold stone floor beneath his knees.  Blackness tried to take him, so  he could not even lift his head to look around.  It felt like home.  Surely --

"Lord Northgate!"

Northgate looked up into the face of Godewyn, one of his most trusted retainers, and someone who had been at Northgate longer than him.  The older man dropped to his knees and grabbed a tight hold of him.

"Trolls," Northgate whispered.

"We know.  We fought them off, but we couldn't find you.  We thought you were still in the tower and sent word to the Royal Court, thinking you must be hurt and we couldn't get in."

He nodded.  Didn't care much.  He finally let go of Clarice since someone was trying to pry his fingers from her arm.

"The man is dead, I fear," Godewyn said with a shake of his head.  "The poison.  It has killed many."

"Damn," he said, a quiet word.  "I knew ... dead.  She would not let go.  She saved me."

Fae understood about obligations and ties, and Godewyn knew why he'd dragged them both, living and dead, back to Northgate.  His honor would not allow him to leave her and the child to die.

Everything went dark.

He awoke later to find Magra holding a cup of tea to his lips.  She offered a tired smile.

"Go easy, Lord Northgate.  We have the poison controlled, but you must regain strength.  Sip the tea."

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Flash Fiction #319 -- Connor of Northgate/3

Lord Northgate floundered in the icy water while the humans shouted.  His ears rang and understood nothing of what they said, even though, being a fae, he translated the language.  Words had power and fae had an inherent ability to understand almost anything spoken.

The humans had turned their boat to come for him. Humans were, on the whole, gentle creatures in their own way.

"Must have fallen from a plane," the man said as he reached over and grabbed Lord Northgate's arm. He almost went unconscious from the pain.

"I'm telling you, there was no plane!" the woman said. She looked over the side, watching. "Are you all right?"

"Fell," he said, and could not think how else to explain the situation. They had no magic here, though in earlier times the humans had understood that it existed. Northgate couldn't begin to come up with an answer to how he came to be in their lake, not with his mind addled. A little magic later would make them believe in the plane. Just get in the boat. Just --

"What the hell is that?" the man demanded as he looked past Northgate. "Bear? Do bears swim out this far?"

"Get him in! Get him in! We have to get away from here!"

The man grunted and pulled Northgate the rest of the way in with a surprising surge of strength.  The fae lord flopped like a fish out of water as he gasped and fought back the pain, and then forced himself to sit up.

The woman, who sat on a bench towards the back of the little craft, was pregnant, which took him by surprise. Young, too. Healthy with the look of someone who spent considerable time in the sun.

Observant as well. The woman took in his odd clothing, wounds, and probably even the curve of his ears with one glance and shook her head as though denying it all.

Something splashed nearby.

"We must -- go," Northgate said, assimilating more of their language.

He glanced around the little craft and managed not to groan. No engine. The man had been rowing by hand, it seemed. A pleasant morning before a fae and troll dropped into their midst.

They were not far from the shore. Northgate grabbed at the paddles, but the man took them quickly and began to row towards the lake shore. Northgate saw a dock not far away, and a pretty little cabin just beyond in the shaded woods.

Northgate turned to the lake and saw the troll's head bobbing in the water. He feared he must do something drastic. Northgate began to call on his inner power and draw a little magic into his hands from the air. Not much -- slow work while the man rowed quickly, breath gasping as they neared the dock.

The woman stared at him. She glanced to his hands where the magic had begun to glitter a little and shook her head, her face going white. He wanted to reassure her, but the troll moved closer.
They reached the dock with the creature only a couple yards behind. The man tossed a rope up and scrambled up, securing it and reaching in to help them. He'd said nothing, but he wasn't blind. The creature in the water was not a bear, and the magic in Northgate's hands was noticeable now.

"Up," Northgate said to the woman. "Both of you up and away from the dock!"

She scrambled out of the rowboat and stood by her husband, who had not moved. Lord Northgate started to pull himself out, but the man reached and lent him aid, even now with the troll's hairy arm coming up over the side of the dock.

"Go!" Northgate warned.

The troll surged upward with enough strength that boards shattered beneath his claws. His red eyes glared with rage as he focused on Northgate and didn't even notice when the man -- far too daring -- reached back into the boat and yanked up one of the paddles for a weapon.

"Clarice! Get to the cabin and grab the rifle!"

Wise. Northgate nodded, but he waved the man back stalked his way.  He heard Clarice heading away which might be both safety and hope.

The man stepped forward and swung the paddle with enough force that it broke over the side of the troll's head, stunning the creature. Northgate threw as much power at it as he could. The drain put him to his knees, but he saw the troll go back down, fall into the water, twitching -- and then stopped moving. Dead. He knew it.

"Praise the gods," he whispered and looked up at the man who was watching the creature float away. "Thank you --"

A second troll leapt straight from the water and to the dock. Northgate hadn't even the strength to curse. He couldn't get back to his feet. So he threw himself at the creature's knees and knocked it down. Unfortunately, it did not go back into the water, which might have given them some hope.

He saw another of the needles in the thing's hand. It snarled and jabbed, but the needle barely pricked his skin. Even so, the result was startling and frightening.
His arm hurt with a pain that drove out the thought of all other wounds. He couldn't breathe, and the troll was already coming at him again, it's mouth open in a wide grin of trollish delight, showing the double rows of teeth that would end his life.

Northgate had not counted on the human leaping in to save him. He yelled in protest and fear and tried to get between them. The man had grabbed the other paddle, and he used it well. The troll growled in protest and swiped at it after two blows struck home, cutting the paddle apart with his razor-sharp claws. The man leapt backward in surprise.

Northgate could hear Clarice rushing back toward them --

Not fast enough.